2020, with its pandemic and its protests, was many things to many people: a hardship for those who lost homes, livelihoods and people they loved to COVID and insufficient government support; an inspiration for activists who have been working for years to call attention to police brutality; and an imposition to those who resent anything that makes them take other people into account (like demands for racial justice or requests to follow public health protocol).
What 2020 should have been for everyone was a wake-up call that the system is not as solid as it might have seemed, and further, that that isn’t all bad.
A brief history of the prosperity myth
Our culture has been operating under an outdated assumption of economic dependability and social consistency for decades now. It’s true that the ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s were a period of economic growth that brought material gain to a larger percentage of (mostly white) people than before. During this time, one could succeed in the system by following particular, prescribed paths.
There’s much to criticize about this system: besides the fact that its benefits weren’t extended to everyone, it was exploitative of the planet. Factories belched pollution into the atmosphere, waterways were tainted with toxic effluent, mines tore open the earth, cars swarmed over the landscape on ribbons of asphalt, wetlands were drained for farms where DDT was sprayed, forests were razed, dams blocked fish, and hundreds of atomic bombs were “tested” sending radiation around the world. Humans who tried to stand in the way of any of this were ridiculed, threatened, imprisoned, driven off their ancestral land or killed.
However, within the narrow scope of what constituted economic well-being in the US, more people were admitted into the “middle class” if they were willing to submit themselves.
It was never as nice as it was made out to be, and this period (known colloquially as “the ’50s”) was also marked by the breakdown of the extended family and place-based community, the rapid rise and dominance of television, and the degradation of the typical diet with junk food. That picture-perfect happy housewife was popping pills for her depression (see the Rolling Stones: “Mother’s Little Helper”).
But yeah, this was the era when, if you were a white guy, you could get a job just by walking up to a boss man, looking him right in the eye, giving him a firm handshake and asking him for one. Or so it was claimed by the purveyors of this mythology, right up through the Reagan era.
Then, in the ’70s, hourly wages began to slip in terms of inflation, and in the ’80s, “trickle down economics” was instituted. The ’90s were marked by austerity and diminishing opportunities. In the 2000s, inequality hit obscene levels, debts skyrocketed, and gentrification stole the cities for the rich. So in truth, the US has been in decline for over forty years. Forty years! And we’re still subjected to the same old pablum about “the rewards of hard work.”
So even as the whole game became increasingly unfair and oppressive, we were sold a picture of “America” in which everyone had equal opportunity, anyone could go from rags to riches, and the only people who didn’t succeed were ones who deserved to fail.
We were pressured into choices and lifestyles we were told were unavoidable because “that’s just how things are.” An air not merely of reliability, but inevitability, characterized the pronouncements of this supposedly prudent class, as they dispensed their wisdom on “success.”
Sacrifice played big in their admonitions, as did obedience. “Here are the rules,” they’ve insisted. “Follow them or end up broke, alone and unhappy.”
Their advice—or more often, arm-twisting—led millions into debt peonage, unhappy commitments and delayed gratification. Questioning any of it was unpatriotic and shaking things up was criminal. Throw in a heavy dose of American exceptionalism so nobody looked elsewhere else for alternatives, and you have the general outlines of our collective delusion.
I always resented these people: the know-it-alls with their dreary prescriptions and arrogant demeanors, pompously professing a gospel of so-called “responsibility” which in actuality was nothing more than a stultifying conformity. They turned a blind eye to the historically demonstrated fact that nothing lasts forever, and that cracks were already appearing in their grand facade.
2020 showed that these folks are wrong. Of course, playing by the book never offered all the rewards they claimed anyway, but their bubble has been burst in full view now. The biggest thing they had going for them—an illusory sense of dependability—is no longer believable for a big swath of the population.
There’s no “going back to normal.” The economy will never fully recover from the blows it took this year; for one thing, too many businesses shut down that will never reopen; for another, too many people are deeper in debt; and most of all, because the momentum was already downhill. On the other hand, a lot more people are now aware of the fact that the police are a racist institution that needs to be brought under control. That’s a welcome strike against Establishment power and propaganda. When the weather warms up in 2021, hopefully we will see another flowering of dissent.
So, as this period of stability crumbles in the US, we have prospects of both continuing economic deterioration and livelier forms of resistance.
But the US domestic scene is not the only thing that’s transitioning out of a period of stability: there’s also the climate.
Climate & civilization
For the last 11,500 years, the earth’s climate has been in a Goldilocks zone for humans: not too hot and not too cold. This allowed agriculture to flourish, which birthed civilization. Civilization has been a mixed bag to say the least, what with patriarchy, slavery, monotheism, ecocide, property, and a distinct decline in human health. Civilization has not mellowed with age, either; more recently, it invented industrialism, colonialism and capitalism. People like to extol the “wonders of modern medicine” but much of what it treats—coronary disease, cancer, diabetes, zoonotic epidemics—are themselves ailments of civilization. That’s a lot like the guy who stabs you taking credit for sewing up the wound.
Regardless, the last 115 centuries have indeed been remarkably consistent, even with anomalies like the Little Ice Age and the Medieval Warm Period. As this reliability dissolves, we’ll experience many ills, including elevated seas that flood settlements; the spread of disease as the ranges of tropical insects expand; animal die-offs on land in the sea, including ones that humans eat; failure of climate-control infrastructure such as air conditioning in urban areas; more wildfires; more floods; and more pandemics.
But farming is the one that worries me most. Whole areas that are currently used for food growing will become unsuitable for that purpose. What is now raised in Nebraska will need to be in North Dakota and eventually Saskatchewan, and there’s only so far north you can go. Political considerations are all too likely to intervene into what should be common sense “all in this together” decisions; at some point the current idea of nation states will need to be set aside for the purpose of collective survival. That might seem impossible right now, but modern notions of nationalism only date from the late 19th Century. Before that happens, I fear that more wars will erupt.
“Normal” isn’t working anyway
Whether we like it or not, the stability of both the US and the planet’s climate is ending. But before we shed too many tears, we must ask ourselves a very honest question: Was either the United States or civilization working that well anyway?
The US has been a brutal experiment in settler-colonialism, founded on genocide, theft and slavery. To this day, its wealth is produced from horrific human rights abuses and outright ecocide. Its citizens are depressed and debilitated. Who is it actually working for? It will be a blessing to many when it no longer has muscle to flex.
As for civilization, it’s a killing machine. Forests precede it and deserts follow, as has been observed (though of course a healthy desert ecosystem is as worthwhile as any other). Like the US, the agricultural-urban complex is founded on domination. It serves a small number while harming multitudes, with non-humans bearing the brunt of the brutality. The sooner it is gone, the sooner the healing can begin.
I know these transitions will bring much human suffering, and I do not wish for that. I am not a misanthrope, as too many collapse-aware individuals are these days; I do not wish for anything that will hurt anyone. However, I recognize that the status quo itself is inherently hurtful, and its end—though messy in the middle—will result in relieving a tremendous amount of suffering that’s just “normal” now.
I also have no idea if I will make it through these transitions without experiencing intense suffering myself. I realize that to some degree—maybe small, maybe large—it’s not up to me. I could make sensible plans, hone practical skills, and gather vital resources and still be taken out by some random event beyond my control.
What’s “beyond our control”? More than we’d like to think, I would guess, or more than we’ve been led to believe by the defenders of the system anyway. Our notion of individual agency might amount to nothing more than the kind of hubris that can only be sustained by the artificiality we’ve manufactured for ourselves. Nature is now delivering us a lesson in humility.
We don’t need a magic eight-ball to know that 2020 is just the beginning; more crises and more opportunities are on the way. The ride’s only going to get more intense. Time to strap in. Or jump out.
Is there anything we can do about the new territory of uncertainty we are entering?
No, in that the inertia of these forces is unstoppable. The US will just fall, the climate will just change. It’s as simple as what goes up must come down.
But also yes, in that we can always try to be decent human beings, living from compassion. We are not only malicious. Those who would have you believe that are not trustworthy; they’ve just told you what they think about themselves.
Ultimately, even though the big picture of downfall is clear, the little steps along the way are not and they won’t all be painful. Some beauty awaits us too.